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Digital divide affects more than half of households in the St. Louis region, says new report

Danielle Harper, the social worker at Mann Elementary School in St. Louis, hands a tablet computer to a parent on April 14, 2020. School districts that serve low-income populations faced a steeper obstacle getting their kids fully online quickly.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Danielle Harper, a social worker at Mann Elementary School in St. Louis, hands a tablet computer to a parent in April 2020.

A new report found the St. Louis region has widespread disparities in access to the internet and technology, with areas like St. Louis and north St. Louis County facing the most barriers.

More than half of all households in St. Louis and St. Louis County are affected by the digital divide, according to the report.

“We've known for a decade or more in this country that the digital divide was problematic, but it was really COVID that brought it home,” said Kathy Osborn, president and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Business Council.

The report was commissioned by the Regional Business Council and the St. Louis Community Foundation.

Large portions of the St. Louis region have only one internet service provider, and that is often expensive and low quality, according to the report. It also found many families don’t have devices to connect to the internet and need training to use the technology.

“It was amazing and sobering to see what we thought we knew backed up with this kind of data,” said Kristen Sorth, director and CEO of the St. Louis County Library. “We've got to figure out a long-term solution that is reliable, affordable and that we teach people how to use.”

These issues are especially problematic for education in St. Louis; as children were asked to learn from home over the past two years, many districts found big gaps in students’ abilities to log on.

“As a school system, we're not in a vacuum,” said University City Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley. “We had devices, we had hotspots. We quickly noticed that if the neighborhood where students and families live doesn’t have the infrastructure, the devices don't work.”

Students in north St. Louis County districts including Jennings, Normandy Schools Collaborative and Riverview Gardens, along with St. Louis Public Schools, face some of the biggest challenges.

“We need to look at the most vulnerable communities and prioritize them,” said Hardin-Bartley. “We need to invest. It is a resource issue.”

The digital divide is often a reflection of income inequality in the St. Louis region, the report found. It also has economic implications, Osborn said.

“When you talk about business and workforce, if we lose the whole era of children because they don't have the technology they need to be fully educated, that ultimately is going to affect who's coming into our workplace,” she said.

But a solution to the problem will be expensive. The initial infrastructure investment could cost $200 million to $300 million. Making broadband available to low-income families might cost at least $45 million in annual subsidies, plus an initial investment of more than $20 million in devices.

The report suggested school districts, libraries and community organizations need to partner to address the problem. Libraries already provide internet access, devices and even training in digital literacy and technology.

“I definitely think that libraries are positioned to assist the community with the educational component and how to use the technology,” Sorth said.

Hundreds of millions of dollars is available in federal funding to address these issues, from the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. That money is set aside for the entire state, but Sorth hopes lawmakers will pay attention to this report’s findings.

“Rural Missouri struggles with internet access and reliable internet access the exact same way that parts of St. Louis County and St. Louis city are suffering,” Sorth said. “We just have to make sure that the state and some of our decision-makers know that we've all got the same issues. So let's come up with a solution that benefits everybody.”

Follow Kate on Twitter: @Kate Grumke

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.